Beijing 20+: How important is ICT for tackling gender inequity?

This is a guest blog by Liesbeth Van den Bossche, gender equality activist and marketing and donations officer at Computer Aid International

The 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action brings opportunities to the international community to renew their commitment to the gender cause and mobilise the public opinion. But whilst it is great for activists and participants to reiterate their intentions, it is crucial to take in consideration the changes that have happened in the world to enable greater implementing of women’s rights worldwide. I believe that only education can enable women to be aware of their rights and in 2015 new technologies are crucial to give female access to education and empowering tools.

As it is stated in the World Economic Forum 2014 Global Information Technology Report little progress has been made in bridging the digital divide between technology savvy nations and others in the past few years and stalling progress risks missing out on the positive impact of ICT within disadvantaged communities. For most developing countries a more solid ICT infrastructure must be a priority to avoid the emergence of a new digital divide.

For women in developing countries this means that 23% of them are less likely than men to be online and build their own knowledge and skills. The African Protocol of Women’s Human Rights stipulates in Article 12 the Right to Education and Training: ‘States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to: promote education and training for women at all levels and in all disciplines, particularly in the fields of science and technology’. Taking this in consideration, ICT4D organisations (ICT for development) are trying to implement equality in the usage of computers and connectivity to give women the ability to learn new skills, become independent and improve their lives.

Researchers at University of Zimbabwe Buhle Mbambo-Thata, Elizabeth Mlambo and Precious Mwatsiya, who partnered up with Computer Aid, demonstrated that women in Zimbabwe are still suffering from discrimination and unequal access to ICT. Due to traditional gender structure, it seemed to the men of the university that women were not worthy of using the PCs lab.

Despite an outwardly equal access to resources and student forums at university, female students struggled to gain access to facilities on an equal footing with male. Moreover, the young women did not feel that they could visit computer labs late at night due to cultural expectations and related stigma, restricting their access to ICT even more.

This resulted to Computer Aid and the University of Zimbabwe to pioneer the country’s first IT lab accessible to female students only and counteract the gender inequity seen in facilities and ICT use so far. The response from female Zimbabwean students after one year of use has been overwhelmingly positive which is why the capacity of the lab will increase from 50 to 150 computers. Users report an increase in confidence when approaching ICTs for the first time. Female students at the University of Zimbabwe can now use ICT for research and can equip themselves with 21st century skills that will put them on a more equal footing with male peers when pursuing careers. This means that more guidance and measures are needed to support women and eradicate gender issues. Although technology is vital for healthy growth and development and has a huge impact on resource-poor communities it is also a vital tool for women to empower themselves especially in developing countries. Control of resources the main goal for women to reach independence, improve their lives and have their rights respected. With ICT literacy women in developing countries have higher chances to access to employment or even set up their own online businesses, generate income for themselves and their family and contribute to a fast growth of their countries economy.

As much as technology is key for development and more women have access to it, women are still left behind. We have to give women the ability to be connected in a fast pacing world where technology has become an essential element for employment and education. ICT4D organisations will have all eyes on the Beijing+20 59th Commission on the Status of Women in the coming week hoping that gender equality issues in ICT will be highlighted and actions will be taken to encourage gender related initiatives in the new technology field.